ANKARA, Turkey – After more than a decade in power, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan dominates Turkish politics like a one-man-show.
He has defanged the once supreme military, reshaped the judiciary and cowed the press. Now, at the peak of his power, he has announced he is running for president — a role he intends to shape into the most powerful job in Turkey.
"For the past 10 years he has had the last say in every issue," says Sukru Kucuksahin, columnist for Hurriyet newspaper. "Whatever he says goes."
Erdogan's announcement Tuesday comes some six weeks before the first round of the presidential election. But as he closes in on becoming Turkey's first directly-elected president, Erdogan's own maneuvering leaves him ironically in a position where he may not control the agenda.
Erdogan engineered a constitutional change for a direct vote as the first of a two-step move to bolster his status as Turkey's pre-eminent leader. But the second step — his aspiration to increase the powers of the presidency — stalled as he failed to build a coalition big enough to enact the change.
Now Erdogan has signaled that he intends to combine the mandate of presidential victory with the force of his own personality to rule Turkey, even with constitutionally limited powers. Erdogan has asserted that the hitherto largely symbolic post has dormant powers that he intends to use, including the right to convene and chair Cabinet meetings. That would put him in the room when the prime minister's most important decisions are made.
He also seems set to handpick a friendly prime minister with the hope that he can still largely control parliament from afar. Perhaps the only political figure with competing stature in Turkey, current President Abdullah Gul, has said that he does not intend to seek the premiership because he does not want to be a caretaker prime minister beholden to Erdogan.
If Erdogan is elected, his Justice and Development Party — AKP — will appoint an interim prime minister to serve until next year's parliamentary elections. Erdogan hopes that the party will win an overwhelming victory in that election, one that is big enough to enact changes to bolster the presidency. The conundrum is that a strong prime minister would help secure such an election victory, but might also exert independent leadership.
Given that uncertainty, Erdogan cannot count on changing the constitution. And Turkish history has at last two troubled examples of prime ministers who sought to maintain control of parliament after they moved to the Cankaya Palace — presidential residence in Ankara. Suleyman Demirel and Turgut Ozal, also attempted to engineer friendly prime ministerial appointments, only to see their parties collapse under new prime ministers.
Erdogan appears to have more control of his party than either Demirel or Ozal ever had. But in transitioning to the presidency, he will lose some of the overt levers he has enjoyed as prime minister. Crucially, he will no longer control the Interior and Justice Ministries that recently helped him survive a corruption scandal. Erdogan has claimed that the allegations were part of a coup attempt by a fifth column in the justice system, controlled by Fethullah Gulen, a moderate Islamist preacher living in the U.S. who was once a close ally of the prime minister.
Numan Kurtulmus, a senior deputy to Erdogan in AKP, who is often mentioned as a possible prime minister, said in an interview that the image of Erdogan as a rising autocrat is misplaced. He says it stems mostly from the fecklessness of the opposition, which did not even name a presidential opponent to Erdogan until June 16. The party is more than Erdogan, he says, and his personal power stems from repeated election wins.
"If we talk about creating a one-man democracy. This is just not true," he says. "But the people who oppose the government have no one to turn to in the parliament."
He notes that Erdogan's rule has given new voice to millions of Turks, especially outside urban centers, who were marginalized under the rule of earlier secularist governments. Reforms championed by Erdogan have bolstered minority rights and reined in the extreme human rights abuses of the military. The benefits of a surging economy have been shared widely. "Wherever you look you will find marvelous achievements," he says. "Erdogan has personally created very strong leadership, and he has convinced the majority of people to back a democratic project."
Others say there are only a few checks left in the Turkish political system to limit Erdogan's whims. The country's top Constitutional Court has recently rolled back actions by Erdogan's government, including its blockage of Twitter and it could also weigh in on any attempt to expand the powers of the presidency. The last check may be whether he pulls off his gambit to reshape the Turkish political system and rule supremely as president.
"He wants to be next Turkish president in control of the executive and legislative branches of the government with a long shadow on the judiciary and every other major political power in the country," says Ersin Kalaycioglu, professor of Political Sciences at Sabanci University in Istanbul.
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